Hazardous Waste Management: Ethics and Responsibities

Living in a Toxic World: What We and Those in Power Should be Doing – Exploring the Ethics of Hazardous Waste Management

By Amanda Winstead

As we continue into the 21st century, humanity’s continued drive towards innovation has allowed us to prosper in ways we could never have imagined.

Our ability to produce goods quickly and cheaply helped usher in a golden age of sorts, and modern humans own more stuff than ever before. The average American home contains a whopping 300,000 items, and environmental activists have long called for widespread change in our consumption habits.

That’s because nearly constant production, and the accumulation of stuff, comes with a heavy price — one that we can no longer afford to ignore. A large chunk of our possessions ends up in landfills in short order, to include 68 pounds of textiles per person annually, as the aforementioned report further claims.

Household waste is just the beginning, however, and much of what we discard is toxic to both public health and the natural world.

Hazardous Waste Management: heaps of domestic waste lying by a river below a bridge
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

The Multifaceted Issue of Hazardous Waste

Running the gamut from medical refuse to chemical runoff, black water, and beyond, hazardous waste is one of the largest environmental issues in modern times, yet solutions remain elusive. In conversations about waste elimination, the general mindset within the U.S. is one that emphasizes individual action over collective action. Environmentally minded citizens are encouraged to recycle whenever possible and work to reduce our overall consumption habits, for example.

But changing our individual habits may not be enough, considering the scope of the issue, and the sheer amount of hazardous materials that companies produce and discard every day. Although any type of action is better than turning a blind eye to toxic waste, a more comprehensive approach is needed to effectively tackle what has become a socio-political and economic issue as well as an environmental one.

We can also learn quite a bit from product labels, including whether an item is biodegradable or crafted in a sustainable manner. Additionally, potentially hazardous products should be labeled as such, and companies are often required to do so by law. Within the U.S., household substances that are corrosive, flammable, or otherwise toxic must be affixed with a safety label, per the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

Large companies and governments must remain accountable when it comes to reducing and managing their hazardous waste, with everyday citizens rising to the occasion and working alongside those in power to find actionable solutions. Here’s what you need to know about individual and collective efforts towards a less toxic world, where hazardous materials are mindfully managed and those in power work hard to balance environmental health with economic interests.

Hazardous Materials in the Workplace

As a whole, the issue of hazardous waste gained traction in the 1970s, when the connection between mindful hazardous waste management became glaringly apparent. The potential negative health and ecological effects of toxic substances are myriad, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Hazardous substances have the potential to damage natural ecosystems beyond repair and may cause physical abnormalities in humans and animals alike, such as birth defects and genetic mutations.

Western industrialized countries are the primary culprits in terms of toxic waste production, especially the U.S. As such, companies in those developed nations must engage in mindful waste management practices to reduce their impact on the environment. Proper hazardous material management comes in many forms, depending on the situation and the nature of one’s business. Every place of business, however, should ensure that employees are properly trained to handle dangerous materials in the workplace, and that hazardous materials like cleaning chemicals are properly marked and safely stored.

Company leaders may not feel inspired to overhaul their waste management procedures all on their own, however. For this reason, government oversight, in the form of local ordinances, et cetera, is a beneficial tool that promotes long-term change. When a facility fails to properly handle and/or discard hazardous material on-site, they may be subject to fines, loss of their business license, and more.

Eliminating Toxins in Waterways and on Land

For many years before we knew better, humans took a rather laissez-faire approach to waste management: That is, we typically disposed of toxic substances into the surrounding environment, notably our waterways and canals. Even though dumping toxic waste into freshwater sources was perfectly legal throughout much of modern history, the long-term, rampant mishandling of hazardous waste has dangerous implications that can be seen to this day.

Increasingly, water quality is a systemic issue largely affecting disadvantaged communities, such as the ongoing crisis facing residents of Flint, Michigan. Lead and other contaminants were detected in the city’s water supply in 2015, causing widespread health issues. As of 2022, Flint residents are eligible to claim their share of a $626 million civil settlement related to the water crisis, with 80% of those funds slated to go to affected children.

When governmental bodies turn a blind eye to serious public health issues such as water quality, the results can be disastrous. And if a governmental institution fails to represent the best interests of its constituents, average citizens are likely to take matters into their own hands, even using DIY methods to improve their water quality. In Flint and elsewhere, those concerned about contaminants can ensure that municipal water is safe to drink by boiling it before consumption and performing an at-home water quality test.

Encouraging Those in Power to Take Action

Yet DIY and individual efforts can’t exist in a vacuum, and a comprehensive approach in regards to mindful toxic waste management is needed. Civil lawsuit settlements may seem like a victory for affected citizens on the surface, but they don’t really serve to hold anyone accountable. And while more global citizens than ever before are doing their part to reduce waste, the issue is so massive that individual action just isn’t enough to fuel lasting change. Instead, we need a collective voice that includes everyday citizens, business owners, and local activists alike.

So, if you’re concerned about the lasting impact of toxic waste on our already vulnerable natural world, speak up. Company leaders can start by setting sustainability goals, beginning with environmental remediation (also known as waste cleanup), and ensuring that those goals are met in a workable timeframe. Further, consider engaging in a promotion campaign, and reach out to local legislators with the tools to drive meaningful change on a large scale. By working collectively, living in a toxic world doesn’t have to be humanity’s future.

About the Author

Amanda Winstead is a writer focusing on many topics including technology and digital marketing. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.